From September 2005 to June 2006 a team of thirteen scholars at the The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication explored how new and maturing networking technologies are transforming the way in which we interact with content, media sources, other individuals and groups, and the world that surrounds us.

This site documents the process and the results.

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More or Less Democracy in the Internet Age?

by Mark E. Kann

In recent years, we have seen a broad disenchantment among people with civic engagement and representative democracy. In the mid-1990s, however, the growth of the Internet revitalized the democratic imagination:

1. The Internet promised to revive the civic sphere and extend community life by providing broad, diverse forums for discussions.

2. The Internet enabled many-to-many citizen interaction that invited online political debate, deliberation, consultation, decision-making, administration, and scrutiny as well as online mobilizing, organizing, petitioning, and protesting.

3. The Internet made polling, plebiscites, and elections relatively cheap and accessible. Conceivably, the voice of the people could be expressed regularly and loudly, expanding popular decision-making and closing the gap between citizens and their representatives.

Within a few years, however, theorists and advocates of digital democracy exhibited a tendency to view civic volunteers, amateur participants, and populist majorities as uninformed, impulsive, and materialisticevidenced in part by their preference for Internet pornography and commerce over online civic and political engagement. Even progressive promoters of digital democracy demonstrated distrust for the people and for digital engagement, participation, and populism.

Increasingly, digital democrats draw on recent political theories of deliberative democracy to prioritize rule-bound rationality a preferred means to tame public passions and articulate, educate, and improve public opinion. This priority gives rise to a very modest effort to achieve more democracy. Ideally, netizens online, disciplined deliberations will produce sober, wise recommendations for policy-maker and law-maker consideration. In effect, deliberation will make the demos safe for democracy.

This priority is problematic for two reasons. One involves what works well on the Internet. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, news groups, listserves, blogs, and wikkies afford users considerable opportunity for talk, but that online talk tends to be undisciplined, intolerant, and superficial rather than deliberative. Furthermore, publicly sponsored web sites rarely take advantage of the Internets interactive possibilities. There is good reason to believe that the disciplined, facilitated discussions sought by deliberative democrats is more suited to the halls of Ivy League universities than to disembodied talk among transient surfers on the Web. By contrast, the undisciplined talk of the coffee house, collaborative participation in mobilizations, and tapping public opinion by way of polling and plebiscites seem well suited to Internet technology.

The other problem is that prioritizing deliberation produces exclusionary tendencies. Individuals and groups that do not adhere to high standards of deliberation may be excluded or at least unwelcome by the moderators of online deliberative venues. Who are the unwelcome? In the U.S., they turn out to be fairly significant percentage and identifiable segment of the public:

1. The impulsive, impassioned, self-interested masses. Drawing on Alexander Hamiltons fears of ordinary people and James Madisons warnings against factions and tyrannical majorities, digital democrats reduce online participation to slow, rational, community-oriented talk. The presumption here is not that greater inclusivity is required for democracy but that greater sobriety is a prerequisite for inclusion.

2. People of faith. Drawing on liberal pluralism, postmodern diversity, identity politics, and the Internets anarchistic/libertarian culture, digital democrats harbor an epistemological distrust for people of religious faith who are committed to a singular version of truth, morality, and virtue. Digital democrats in the U.S. have witnessed the rise of Christian fundamentalism in domestic politics and Islamic fundamentalism on the international scene. Conceivably, the promotion of online civic engagement, political participation, and populist plebiscites would further empower people on the wrong side of the todays culture wars.

3. Social and Political Mobilizations. The activists who participate in the shifting mobilizations favoring the Zapatistas and opposing the World Trade Organization, for example, represent the antithesis of online deliberative democracy. These activists base their appeals as much on passion and justice as on sobriety and rationality. They talk but they quickly eschew talk for action. Furthermore, both their talk and action transcend the boundaries of national citizenship to address local issues that have global consequences and global issues that have local consequences. Digital democrats, like most democratic theorists, presume the centrality of the nation-state; however, the Internet has facilitated the ability of activists to act as citizens of the world.

Efforts by digital democrats to view the Internet as a forum for rational deliberation are problematical. They are based on scant evidence that disembodied talk can measure up to standards of deliberative democracy; and they prioritize one aspect of democracy that makes outsiders of citizen majorities, people of faith, and activists in pursuit of transnational goals.

The revitalized democratic imagination of the mid-1990s was a more promising basis for understanding how the Internet might facilitate movement toward greater civic engagement, political participation, and citizen policymaking and lawmaking. The disorderly talk of chatrooms, possibilities for online participation in decision making, and the ease of Internet polls, plebiscites, and elections do invite more democracy.

Submitted by mkann on October 6, 2005 - 8:26pm


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